Brief History of the Scottish Kilt

The Highlands of Scotland, where our kilt originated, include the northwestern mainland counties of Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness, and Argyll.  Originally of Gaelic descent, the early Highland clans were tribes who lived and farmed their own lands and occasionally fought and invaded one another.

Scottish Highlanders have been wearing garments of tartan-patterned fabric (commonly known as plaid) for over 400 years.  In the soggy bogs of the Highlands, trousers were impractical - for health reasons as well as comfort.  Wet clothing wouldn't have dried in the damp conditions of most homes.  Even early shoes were designed with the perforations in the uppers to allow water to escape.  Though tartans don't appear to have been used as clan identification prior the the early 19th century, the forerunner to the kilt is an ancient garment.

Nicknamed "redshanks" for their bare legs, Highlanders have worn "skirts" since pre-medieval times.  The precursor to the kilt was called a breacon feile, or belted plaid.  It consisted of a large rectangle of tartan wool that was worn pleated around the waist and held in place with a belt.  The bottom half of the garment formed a skirt with overlapping, unpleated aprons in the front.  The top half was either tucked into the belt, worn as a cape over the shoulders and fastened in front with a brooch, or draped over one shoulder and secured there with a brooch.  

The plaid was especially handy clothing to wear for herding; not only was the close weave of early tartans somewhat waterproof, it also provided excellent shelter for outdoor sleeping.

Around 1730 the breacon feile evolved into the feileadh beah (philabeg) or "little Kilt".  The draped top was separated from the skirt, and the modern kilt results when the pleats were permanently sewn in place.

Following the infamous Battle of Culloden in 1746, in which the beloved Bonnie Prince Charlie, challenger to the British throne (and for whom our eponymous jacket is named), was defeated, the wearing of tartan garments was outlawed.  In an effort to deter further rebellion that might be fueled by Scottish national pride the Act for the Abolition and Proscription of Highland Dress was passed in 1747, banning the wearing of any form of tartan dress.  Exempt from this rule were the Scots in Highland regiments of the British military, who were permitted to wear kilts, carry their traditional weapons, and play the bagpipes.

After some work to repeal the Act, it was finally done in 1782, but by then some of the ancient tartan patterns had been lost.  New tartans were quickly designed and assigned, sometimes completely at random, to the ancient Highland clans. 

In 1822, King George IV made the first official royal visit to Scotland in over 150 years.  Advising him on the strip was noted Scottish historian, Sir Walter Scott, whose Waverly Novels greatly romanticized the Highlands and ignited much interest in the area.  Scott commissioned the design of the Royal Steward tartan for the King, and also advised him on wearing of the traditional Highland dress. 

Credit for the widespread popularity of all things Scottish, especially tartans, must go to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who built Balmoral Castle near Aberdeen in the mid-1840s.  Prince Albert designed Balmoral tartan for use in the castle, and it appeared in  a variety of forms:  from rugs to linoleum to upholstery and drapes - even the uniforms of the household staff.     

Balmoral tartan

Kilts today are worn in hundreds of different tartans, by men, women, and children all over the world - often at celebrations or events.  There are actually thousands of different tartans - for different clans and families, in "dress", in "hunting", etc.  If you wish to search tartans based on clan or color, there is an official tartan registry in the UK.  You can also create your own tartan at USA Kilts.  The options are vast!



Images are from the Victorian era book, romanticizing Scottish Highland wear, Clans of the Scottish Highlands (1845).